Will the Trump Administration Help HBCUs Survive the Cost of Coronavirus?

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels wrote in the Washington Post recently about his duty to reopen the institution this fall in spite of looming threats associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. While his tone towards cautious leaders concerned with widespread sickness and liability seemed to have been ripped straight out of the GOP pandemic playbook chapter on ‘freedom over science,’ his points about the necessity for an economic engine like Purdue to meet the needs of an eager client base and global community have merit.

One of his points should stick out as a marker for other presidents, and particularly those in the HBCU sector who are trying to wrestle with the unknown of this virus and the mystery of what this will cost in the short term and over the years of recovery.

On arrival in August, each Boilermaker will receive a kit including face masks and a thermometer for daily temperature-taking as well as the Protect Purdue Pledge asking for a commitment to at least a semester of inconvenience, not primarily for the student’s own protection but for the safety of those who teach and otherwise serve them. I will urge students to demonstrate their altruism by complying, but also challenge them to refute the cynics who say that today’s young people are too selfish or self-indulgent to help us make this work.

First, give credit to Purdue for having the resources to cover masks and thermometers for a student body that exceeded 44,400 students on its main campus in 2018. Without accounting for its smaller campuses, and accounting for the money it may have lost in tuition refunds and fall enrollment, maybe Purdue has great flexibility in converting some endowment funds, rainy day resources, and alumni giving into a coronavirus war chest.

But saying something and spending something are two different things. A recent article from McKnight’s Healthcare news service reports on a dramatic increase in the costs of PPE since the COVID-19 outbreak.

The (Society for Healthcare Organization Procurement Professionals) analysis breaks down per-patient-day costs for both pre-COVID and current conditions and requirements. (See Exhibit 2.) Most products would need to be changed multiple times per work shift, with some needing to be refreshed for every new resident encounter.

That’s a far cry from the pre-COVID-19 pricing and requirements, which essentially comprised gloves and soap and water, Stawis said. That amounted to about $0.35 per patient day, which would rise to about $2.36 per patient day when current CDC guidelines are factored in.

Obviously, a college would not have the same equipment demands as a healthcare facility, even a large scale hospital. But an institution with even just 2,000 students would discover a big bill in trying to furnish just one mask for every student, faculty, and staff member on the campus.

A one-time purchase of one mask for 2,000 students and 400 faculty and staff members on campus would cost $9,600 according to this analysis — no additional supply for guests or lost masks, just one mask for every face scheduled to be on campus for a given period of time.

Sneeze guards, which may be mandated by municipal or state guidelines for reopenings, can cost between $300-$500 for a single installation depending on materials and contractor regional availability.

Coronavirus testing kits can draw between $135 and $150 for a single-use. Some leaders have suggested that opening campuses will be tied to the widespread availability of these kits for constant screening of campus stakeholders showing symptoms and for contact tracing after the discovery of an infection.

Masks, guards and kits are the essential basics of reopening campuses to people, even with vastly reduced occupancy rules and outfitting for distancing — all of which do not account for the contract labor or overtime which may be needed to reconfigure millions of square feet in dormitories, dining halls, libraries, student service suites, classrooms, lounges, laboratories, studios, rehearsal halls, bathrooms, and more.

All of this is before factoring new budgets for hand sanitizer and secured dispensers, audits for security and police personnel, keyless entry and locks to prohibit the free traffic of people who have not been authorized to be on campus, staff, and equipment to disinfect spaces on a daily or even hourly basis.

And these are just the costs that are easy to determine based on people and available resources. But what happens if a student, faculty, or staff member becomes infected? What is the cost of the negative publicity and the resulting rush of employees who may refuse to report to work, or students who may refuse to remain on campus?

What will cover the legal costs that will come with the inevitable lawsuits for unsafe working or living conditions, or unmet expectations for academic service delivery?

The unknowns were enough to persuade leaders of the California State University System to announce earlier this month that its campuses would not hold in-person instruction for at least the fall semester. But that system, like many other predominantly white and affluent colleges and universities across the country, enjoys a measure of political protection for the decisions they make regarding opening or closing campus.

Large PWIs in red states will have the legislative cover to deal with outbreaks or deaths in the name of getting back to business. Large PWIs in blue states have the flexibility to make choices on opening and re-closing as the health trends may dictate, knowing that their coffers will never see the consequences of the new, coronavirus-driven political spectrum of caution and ambition.

HBCUs have no such cover. They are mostly in beet-red states which have for generations attempted to land-grab around their campuses, tamper with leadership, poach students, and marginalize their brands in the marketplace. And that trend is not likely to end with an ‘all together now” enlightenment caused by the coronavirus. In fact, it is likely to get worse.

The only protection for HBCUs must come from the White House, and fortunately, the Trump Administration has shown a predilection for supporting black colleges over the last three years. If President Trump wants to truly crown his first term, it will be with a robust, Congress-backed funding package for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions designed to absorb the costs of reopening amidst the threat of a spike in infections this fall.

The White House has galvanized Congress in bipartisan support of more than $930 million to support HBCU students in continuing their education, and to support to an extent HBCU faculty and staff remaining employed. That support has been unprecedented and appreciated, and has prompted HBCU leaders to propose other creative measures to preserve HBCUs while helping the nation to heal.

Black colleges help black people, and we need more help from institutional strongholds than we have ever needed before. The White House has to stand in solidarity with this proposition because far too many leaders in the past, even those whom black people unequivocally trusted, failed to do so.

As the work of reopening looms large in equal parts of mystery and necessity, black colleges need allies and funding. And if they have to wait beyond July to find out if they’ll have them, then HBCU leaders may quickly discover that their time and few resources may be better spent trying to reimagine the future of digital learning instead of aiding the great American recovery.